Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Solo: A Star Wars Story is titled Solo, but it's not the first film for which that's true. Why, you might say it's not the SOLO mov- [gets torn apart by wolves]

So you hear "military android that turns against its programming to save a Central American village, and also it was made in the mid-1990s", and you recognise right that Solo is going to have a pretty damn low ceiling for how actually good it might be. The impressive thing is how far the film stays from hitting that ceiling. It's an altogether nonsensical bit of action/sci-fi garbage that marries a dreadful script with hilariously chintzy action, and pits two amazing non-performances against one another.

For about a tenth of a second, it seems like this might be going someplace interesting: we learn right away that Solo (Mario Van Peebles) is a new experimental robot designed to have all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of a human soldier, and to be disposable. One would think that watching a fat white general cackling with glee at the thought of an army of expendable black robots, particularly with Melvin Van Peebles's son in the lead role, might be doing something; this would be wrong. Also, most of the plot takes the form it does because Solo is specifically not disposable, so this whole little introductory scene is misleading in two entirely different directions.

Anyway, it's generic as hell: Solo is being tested out in some nameless Central American country (the film was shot in Mexico) under the supervision of his - its? - designer, Dr. Bill Stewart (Adrien Brody, a wee slip of a 23-year-old when this came out, though he looks older), and over the obvious objection of black ops hardass Colonel Frank Madden (William Sadler). The Solo project is a special pet of General Clyde Haynes (Barry Corbin, apparently enough of a name to snag the coveted "and... as" credit for his troubles), but it's not looking good for our android friend: he defuses a bomb that he himself set, thereby ruining a mission, when he realises that several innocent children would die in the explosion. Solo explains this as a violation of one of his core mission directives ("prevent civilian causalities") but Dr. Stewart insists that this is actually a sign of the robot's emerging sense of morality and guilt.

The thing is, Solo doesn't really seem to agree with Dr. Stewart. There are no end of problems with David Corley's script (adapted from what I cannot imagine was a very good book, Robert Mason's 1989 Weapon. It is amazing to me that Solo isn't the most awful, generic title that this material could have had), but one of the biggest is that it has fundamentally no idea what the hell is up with its main character. Oh, it thinks it knows, and if you compare the first ten and the last ten minutes, it's exactly what you would suppose: the robot learns to be more human. That lovely old chestnut, familiar from dozens of stories and novels over the preceding six or seven decades, not to mention something like 35% of the episodes of the recently completed cult favorite TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation. With all of that, you'd think that Solo might have had a decent model to borrow from, but that would be a surprisingly unfounded hope. For a good half of the film, Solo doesn't seem to be a Pinocchio-style simulacrum hoping to become a real supersoldier; he's a machine, behaving mechanically, according to a clearly laid-out set of rules, with no sense of personality other than to rather over-literally interpret his programming. It's like if Tom Clancy had contributed a short story to I, Robot.

This already raises some massive logical gaps in the plot - Solo has no end of these - concerning how fucking dumb Dr. Stewart must have been when he was programming Solo, coming up with basically no contingency plans for how to manage his immortal, impermeable superman on any mission that went wrong in even the smallest way. But we can wave that away with a gag about military intelligence. The bigger problem is that the film relies pretty extensively on Solo being a sympathetic figure right away, one that we long to see transcend his artificial origins, and he's just not. Van Peebles is no help: he's actually quite good at playing a synthetic being capable only of mechanical reactions and stiff, jerky movements. So good that he really and truly does not seem human, which puts the film off on the wrong foot emotionally right from the start, even if it makes perfect sense according to the logic of the story.

Ah well, enough of the smoldering crater where Solo meant to have a narrative arc. There's plenty else that's wrong with the film - honestly, very little is right with the film, except that Van Peebles is kind of interesting in his portrayal of a robot, and Sadler is very definitely interesting in his strangely overweening attempt to play a military sociopath (Sadler also has to deal with some "quippy" dialogue that clangs like the door of a tomb. A personal favorite: "First rule when dealing with the devil: don't", as his bad-ass send-off to somebody he then ruthlessly shoots. "Welcome to the jungle, said the spider to the fly" is another especially choice example. It is possible that playing the role as emotionally inert was Sadler's way of getting through this without laughing). Let it be clear that "interesting" doesn't imply "good" in either case; it is, however, a striking example of watching two fundamentally unfeeling, unsympathetic, urgently mechanical performances jut against each other. And there is something appealing to Sadler's chilliness, which feels like a throwback to a mid-level '80s film rather than a dire misstep in a shitty '90s film.

But I was about to start rattling off things that are terrible. Second on that list, after its baffling inability to execute the most clichéd narrative formula in all of science fiction, is its deeply unconvincing action. See, what happens, is Solo escapes Haynes's efforts to shut him down, and ends up in an Indian village that is being tormented by a local guerrilla group under command of the mad Rio (Demián Bichir). In no time at all, Solo is doing the whole Seven Samurai routine, teaching the farmers how to fight back, and doing much of the fighting himself, except that because he's a super-powered killbot, it only takes one of him, not seven OH SHIT THAT'S WHY HE'S CALLED "SOLO" I GET IT NOW. The point being, the list of films that Solo is self-evidently borrowing from is not a short one, topped by The Terminator and Apocalypse Now - ponder for a moment the film that counts those as its two most apparent influences, and you'll have some sense of why Solo turned out the way it did - but Seven Samurai is maybe not so self-evident, and I want to call it out. Anyway, Solo helps the farmers fight the guerrillas, then Madden comes along and sneakily teams up with the guerrillas to stop Solo, even though they're exactly the same guerrillas the U.S. is currently trying to kill. So there are plenty of opportunities for real fine shitty action, like when an RPG is fired into a straw hut, and the hut explodes like every last twig of its humble frame had been soaked in gasoline.

This is emblematic of the odd, ersatz way that action works in Solo, which suggests that the filmmakers have watched movies but never thought about how they were made. The big example is the film's high number of "neck-snapping" deaths, which typically involve Van Peebles cradling somebody's chin and then lightly rolling their head to the side; I get that the casualness of this is meant to be cool, but it looks fake as hell, fake as a bunch of 10-year-olds making an action movie in the backyard. Or the dopey use of slow motion as a dramatic, spectacular thing: at one hugely important point late in the film, Solo launches himself at the big bad guy (the film, in just 94 minutes, manages to have three different villains, all right in a row), and he ends up kicking and flailing his legs like he's just done an ill-advised belly flop off a diving board. We are allowed to appreciate this at unnecessarily great length.

It's no surprise that the film turns out to be cheap and threadbare: very, very early on we see an obviously animatronic jaguar that moves so jerkily you can almost hear the pneumatics wheezing. It looks like a Rainforest Cafe prop in bad need of a trip to the repair shop. This is before there's been an ounce of fighting, you understand. So the film turning out to have action that looks like it was choreographed five minutes before it was shot feels more inevitable than disappointing. Still, a film like Solo really only has a very small number of reasons for being, and when the most prominent of those reasons is fucked up quite this bad, it's a pretty bleak indication of the very meager amount of pleasure that the film has to offer.